It is no secret that the media plays a major role in how the general public perceives complex social issues. In identifying current media framing around the foster care system, we can work toward shifting coverage to improve understanding and increase support for transition age youth. In two recent reports, FrameWorks Institute looks at how effective storytelling can make a difference.

The first report, entitled “Telling a New Coming-of-Age Story: Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understandings of Transition Age Youth,” focuses on communicating thoughtfully about transition age youth, specifically highlighting the unique challenges and opportunities these individuals face in young adulthood. Understanding how the public currently thinks about the foster care system is vital to framing related stories in a way that audiences can understand and, ultimately, support.

“If communicators know how the public thinks about transition age youth, they can tell a new story that has the power to help the public better understand and support this important group.”

For example, some of the top solutions presented by the general public surveyed in the FrameWorks study are “love and support” and “building life skills.” These are relatively vague solutions when presented alone, but they can be a great starting point for discussion when put in the context of the entire system, highlighting the policies and programs that can truly support transition age youth.

More research must be conducted in this space, but FrameWorks Institute offers the following initial recommendations for communicators looking to tell this coming-of-age story in a responsible way that resonates with the public:

  • Lead with the potential, not the struggles, of adolescence.
  • Offer clear definitions.
  • Explain the basics of the foster care system.
  • Avoid crisis messaging.
  • Emphasize that transitioning out of the foster care system is a process that should extend over several years.
  • Tell stories that place transition age youth in context.
  • Use concrete examples of effective interventions and policies.

The second report, entitled “Stuck in Crisis: Media and Organizational Discourse on Foster Care and Transition Age Youth,” addresses the frames and storytelling techniques currently used by the media covering issues relating to the foster care system, analyzing the implications this has on public attitudes.

It was found that almost 50 percent of articles covering the foster care system employ crisis messaging, focusing on the challenges faced by the system and its players. This is harmful because “…crisis messaging without clear and consistent explanations of solutions leaves the public with the sense that such problems can’t be fixed.” For this reason, we must shift the “system in crisis” narrative to solutions while reinforcing that transition age youth are people, not just the systems they represent. An example offered by FrameWorks Institute is a story on how the system is underfunded, highlighting the role of resources and systems in supporting transition age youth, while pointing to tangible, actionable solutions.

Here are key recommendations for journalists covering the foster care system:

  • Frame foster care as a social issue.
  • Rebalance the discussion about outcomes.
  • Provide examples of effective interventions and programs.
  • Explain the unique challenges faced by transition age youth and how they can be overcome.
  • Continue to elevate the voices and perspectives of those with foster care experience – in the right ways.
  • Highlight disparities in the foster care system and explain why they exist.
  • Place individual stories in a systemic context.

Together, we can shift the narrative around the foster care system so the public gets the full story of transition age youth working toward becoming thriving and self-sufficient adults.

2019 Reports on Transition Age Youth

By FrameWorks Institute

Read and download here